25 June 2016

On the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 23, from Broc to Gruyères

Time: 1.5 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 180 metres
Height loss: 150 metres

Broc - Gruyères

My Alpine Panorama Trail walk has ground to a halt since I arrived in Broc on 1st June. Three successive weekends of truly awful weather have prevented me from continuing: I was expecting to have completed the walk by now, but it was a hopelessly over-optimistic wish.

I have booked a hotel room in Les Paccots for Saturday evening, and am determined to make some real progress this weekend, with two long days' walking. The next two stages of the trail are the last in what could really be described as mountainous terrain, before reaching the much gentler countryside along Lake Geneva for the final four days' walking.

It has been a hot, sunny week but once again, the weather forecast for the weekend is not really compatible with hiking in the mountains. Saturday will be thundery, with the satellite picture showing a big, ugly set of storms running across the region some time during mid to late afternoon. To be honest, only the fact that my hotel room is booked (having already been cancelled two weekends ago for weather-related reasons) pushes me to give it a go anyway.

The view from the train to Broc does not give me too many reasons to be confident about the outcome of the day. The sky over the Fribourg Pre-Alps is an unpleasant purple-black colour, although there is plenty of much friendlier-looking blue above the lower-lying regions. I actually start walking under an uncomfortably hot sun in Broc, where I get off the train at twenty past ten.

Almost immediately, things go wrong. I follow the waymarking for national route No. 3 out of the village, crossing fields of long grass which, after the heavy rain of the last 24 hours, soon soak my trouser legs. Up ahead, I can hear the buzzing of what sounds like a whole army of chainsaws: there must be some serious forestry activity going on. Then I top a grassy crest, and see that the source of the noise is not saws, but motorbikes. There is a motocross competition going on, and the circuit crosses the footpath, blocking it completely. Bikes are slithering up and down muddy banks, churning the ground into a black mess as they roar round the circuit. I ask a marshal if there is any way through, but the answer is no: I will have to retrace my steps all the way back to Broc and find an alternative route. The diversion causes me a delay of 45 minutes; minutes which I suspect may have been precious in my race against the afternoon thunderstorms.

The alternative route leads me past Broc's municipal swimming pool, then along a muddy path that runs alongside the fast-flowing river Sarine. The path leads me along the perimeter of the motocross circuit, unseen because of the trees but most definitely not unheard. I have to keep getting out of the way of mountain bikers, who I do not see coming because of the racket made by the motorbikes.

"Le pont qui branle"
The riverside path eventually brings me to a place marked on the map as Le pont qui branle, which could be translated as "Rickety Bridge". Rickety it may have been in some distant past, but today's bridge is a solid wooden structure, covered and completely enclosed apart from two small openings that give a view out to the fast-flowing river. On the west bank of the Sarine now, a lane leads me to the foot of the hill on top of which stands the village of Gruyères, one of Switzerland's big tourist hotspots, dominated by its castle. I cross the main road that runs round the foot of the hill, then climb steeply up a cobbled path towards one of the ancient gates in the walls that surround the village. Just before midday I reach the village square at the top of the hill, with its restaurants, fountains and hordes of selfie-snapping tourists.

Climbing up towards Gruyères
Up ahead, the view should be dominated by the 2,002-metre summit of the Moléson, but the weather has taken a turn for the worse and the mountain is covered in thick, black cloud. The blue sky that seemed to be making a good attempt to win some ground an hour ago has disappeared completely; rain and thunderstorms are very obviously not far off. I have a decision to make now: I still have another five hours' walking to cover today, I need to climb up to Plan Francey at an altitude of more than 1500 metres, then traverse below the north-western cliffs of the Moléson and its neigbour Teysachaux before dropping down to Les Paccots. Though not difficult terrain by any stretch of the imagination, it will be very much exposed to whatever weather the sky decides to chuck at the Moléson, and opportunities for shelter will be few and far between. 

Gruyères
The only sensible decision is to abandon the walk in Gruyères, from where at least I can get home easily. I call the Auberge du Lac des Joncs in Les Paccots, cancel my reservation but offer to pay anyway; an offer which is declined by the very friendly woman who answers the phone. I have just missed a train and have to wait 55 minutes for the next one: all in all, by the time I get home, I will have spent seven hours either sitting on trains or waiting for them for barely 90 minutes' walking, of which more than an hour was spoilt by the noise of motorbikes. There have been better days…

Previous stage

01 June 2016

On the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 22, from Jaun to Broc

Time: 4.25 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 330 metres
Height loss: 650 metres

Jaun – Charmey - Broc

After the previous leg which took me to the highest point of the Alpine Panorama Trail and into some proper mountain scenery, this one is a complete contrast, and is the easiest of the whole route so far. The walk follows the bottom of a valley from the hills down to the plains, and is dominated by water. Another short stage, it is divided into three very distinct sections: firstly along the bank of the river Jogne, then round a lake and finally through a deep gorge. It's a cloudy morning and although I will have no rain, I will not see the sun all day either. However, it still looks like being the best that the weather will manage during the second week of my holiday, and I have decided to make the most of a bad job and walk anyway.

I take the train to Bulle, then a bus up the valley to Jaun. This bus ride basically follows the route that I am about to walk in the opposite direction, which feels a bit strange and somehow breaks the continuity of the trail. Because of the time it takes to get to Jaun, it's half past eleven before I start walking. I go down to the riverside beside the waterfall and the little whitewashed church, not bothering to visit the graveyard as recommended as a gardener is noisily cutting the grass with a strimmer. The Jaunbach (which will become the Jogne a little way downstream) is flowing fast and clear, big stones on its bed showing through the rushing, transparent water.

The Jaunbach at Jaun
For the first two hours of today's walk, I follow the river downstream, most of the time under shady trees right on its bank. There has been quite a bit of rain over the last few days (I seem to be writing that a lot, don't I?) and the path is greasy and slippery, where not downright muddy. The route switches regularly from one bank to the other, over strong bridges designed to bear the weight of farm traffic. I will be crossing some much more fragile specimens later today. The road that also runs down the valley keeps at a safe distance and I am never really aware of its presence, unlike I was when walking from Zollhaus up to Schwarzsee.

Beyond the riverside screen of trees, the valley is working: wood and stone seem to be important elements of the local economy. In the village of Im Fang, long lines of planks are piled up beside the road, while on three different occasions I will pass by quarries where heavy machinery is being used to smash and grind rock which will be used to build roads and reinforce embankments.

Im Fang is the last German-speaking village crossed by the Alpine Panorama Trail, and the close proximity of the linguistic frontier is shown by the fact that road signs are in both German and French. At some invisible point between Im Fang and Charmey, I will cross the mythical "Rösti barrier" that separates Switzerland's linguistic communities, and the remaining stages of the walk will all be in Francophone territory, making reserving hotels and ordering beers just that little bit more comfortable. I pass a village football pitch which looks like it has not been mown for a long time, and whose goals stick up above a white, yellow and mauve sea of wild flowers. The whole of today's walk is in fact very colourful, with the meadows all full of an infinite variety of flowers. Shortly before the place marked on the map as Pra Jean (which already sounds a lot more French), a sign hanging from a fence appears to be warning me about the possibility of unexploded bombs, which would be a very unlikely thing to find in this rural place. Maybe the locals have laid a minefield across the linguistic frontier?

The linguistic divide is not far away...

... but it seems to be protected by minefields!
At Les Fornis, I cross the river again and briefly leave its bank, as the path heads north across a grassy pasture. Ahead of me is a very wild-looking valley that runs off northwards: one of my old guidebooks describes it (in French) as "the Valley of the Dead, known for its vipers and its avalanches"… luckily, the Alpine Panorama Trail does not go that way! I continue along a quiet backwater of stagnant water, fed by a little waterfall which then rejoins the main river. This backwater is not marked on the map, and is presumably a consequence of the recent rainy weather. 

A wild side valley at Les Fornis
It is not much further to Charmey, the valley's main community. It's a busy little resort town, complete with a thermal spa complex and three or four hotels along the main street (although one of these looks like it has been closed for a while with sad-looking dusty, curtainless windows). Beyond here, the gentle riverside stroll ends and I begin the second part of today's walk, along the northern side of the Lac de Montsalvens.

Montsalvens is an artificial lake, created by the damming of the Jogne a couple of kilometres west of Charmey. Despite being man-made, it is however very beautiful, with its green water and mountain backdrop. I walk down a steep lane which becomes a steep, muddy path, dropping down to cross an arm of the lake on a frail-looking suspension bridge. The surface of the lake is absolutely calm; the water is a rich, vegetal green in which the dense forest that surrounds the lake is reflected. The suspension bridge itself takes me by surprise by swaying quite a bit when I step onto it: anyone who does not like these bridges might not be very comfortable with this. The banks of the lake are steep and wooded, so there is no continuous view across to the far side. A quarter of an hour after crossing the bridge, a picnic table positioned opposite an opening in the foliage enables me to eat my sandwiches while enjoying the view. The sense of peace and quiet is remarkable here, given the close proximity of the road. 


Lac de Montsalvens
  Soon after setting off again after lunch, I reach the western end of the lake, and the dam. From the southern end of the dam, there is a superb view back eastwards across the whole lake. It is a landscape made up entirely of tones of green and grey – at least today – and is very beautiful indeed.

Looking east from the Montsalvens dam
The dam marks the point of transition between the second and third parts of the walk. Immediately west of the dam, the path plunges steeply down into the deep gorge beyond, slithering down over stones above a big drop down to rushing water. Luckily there is a wooden handrail to hold on to, as the path is very slipper and you would not want to fall over the edge. At the bottom of this steep descent, I cross the river on the first of several fragile-looking footbridges, high above the wild river just downstream from a loud waterfall that seems to be coming straight out of the cliff face. The next half an hour is a succession of tunnels and footbridges, sometimes high above the river, sometimes almost down at the level of the water. I go off into a bit of a daydream, already mentally writing this blog post, and get the fright of my life when I almost walk straight into a group of about 10 people coming the other way. They must have found the jump that I made on seeing them very funny. I cross another bridge to the far side of the gorge (the one looks very rickety indeed), walk through one last tunnel, and then the valley opens out and the gorge is behind me.


In the Jogne gorge
The narrow path becomes a broad track, which I follow up to join the main road: I have been walking parallel to it for the last four hours, but have hardly seen it at all except in the villages. There is a strange, sweet smell in the air which I cannot quite place, until I see a roadside sign welcoming me to Broc – la Ville du Chocolat. At which point, the source of the smell becomes obvious: Broc has a large chocolate factory, which attracts tourists from all over the world for a glimpse of how Swiss chocolate is made. 

My guidebook would have me continue to the hilltop town of Gruyères for the end of this stage. But with the additional walking time plus the more awkward transport connections back to Lucerne, this would mean me getting home two hours later, at nine in the evening. And so I decide to stop at Broc for today, and tack the extra hour and a quarter's walk to Gruyères onto the start of the next stage. Only two more "mountain" stages remain now before the Alpine Panorama rail reaches Lake Geneva and a completely different kind of landscape. I will have to do these two stages together with an overnight stay, simply because the transport logistics of getting to Les Paccots from Lucerne are a nightmare. And, given that there is no accommodation available in Les Paccots this coming weekend because of a mountain marathon, it will be ten days before I can do them. I wanted to reach at least Lausanne by the end of my two-week holiday: thanks to this lack of accommodation and to the unseasonably bad weather, I have fallen three days short of my objective.

26 May 2016

On the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 21, from Schwarzsee to Jaun

Time: 4 hours
Grading: T2
Height gain: 740 metres
Height loss: 770 metres

Schwarzsee – Brecca – Euschelspass - Jaun

I am woken at half past five by the tinkling of cowbells on the hillside above the hotel where I have spent the night at Schwarzsee. I nod off to sleep again, before finally getting up at 7:45. Today's walk will be short – probably no more than three and a half hours – and I can afford to take it easy. My only constraint is that I really need to be at Jaun in time for the 15:30 bus, which will get me home at about half past seven in the evening. I go out onto the terrace to inspect the weather conditions. There is blue sky to the west, but it's still cloudy overhead. The surface of the lake seems to be absorbing all the darkness of the clouds, amply meriting its name.

The hotel's breakfast room is vast and functional, but somewhat dated and rather soulless. I am surprised to see how many other people are there, many more than I saw in the restaurant yesterday evening. Mostly speaking French and wearing suits and ties, it looks like all these people are here for a conference rather than for the great outdoors. As I eat my breakfast, the background conversation revolves around e-learning and workflows; it's a slightly odd reminder of what kind of thing I would normally be doing on a day like today. The radio is still stuck in yesterday's rather melancholy 1980s groove, with Abba's The day before you came being immediately followed by Elton John's Sorry seems to be the hardest word.

A sunny morning at Schwarzsee
I finish breakfast, pack up my stuff and, at 9, am ready to check out. The receptionist asks me where I am going, and I briefly tell her about my Alpine Panorama Trail project. She seems to know what I am talking about, says that I must have come from Guggisberg yesterday (which I did), and recommends that I visit the cemetery in Jaun where, she says, each grave bears not just the name but also the profession of its occupant. The clouds have cleared completely by the time I am ready to start walking; the surface of the lake is absolutely calm and the reflection of the surrounding mountains on the water is perfect. Two pedal boats shaped like white swans are moored to the wooden jetty, presumably waiting for the visit of Galadriel and a host of elves.


The Alpine Panorama Trail has a tendency to seek out the path of least resistance, going for the most direct and easiest option even when it might be to the detriment of the scenery. Today is a glorious exception though: the signpost at the northern end of the lake indicates only 2 hours 50 minutes to Juan by the shortest route, but national route No. 3 takes a much longer way round; maybe because the day's walk would simply be too short otherwise. Today is a public holiday in canton Fribourg and there are lots more people around than yesterday. As I walk southwards down the eastern bank of the lake, I pass quite a few people hiking, jogging or fishing. Above my left shoulder, the steep flank of the Kaiseregg still looks cold and uninviting. I wonder again if I will find snow at the Euschelspass: I have walked over it twice before; once on snowshoes in the middle of winter, the second time in May 2010, when I set off from Schwarzsee in pouring rain which turned to snow halfway up to the top of the pass.

I reach the southern end of the lake and follow a stony path that climbs through woodland alongside a noisy stream. The wet stones are slippery in the extreme, making me regret having chosen my old walking boots for these two days: their soles have lost most of their tread and grip. I pass an isolated chalet in a clearing (Spicherweid, 1105 m), then drop down to cross the stream on a very slippery metal footbridge, before climbing back up to Hubel Rippa, 1141 m, where cows rush to the electric fence to stare at me and from where there is a panoramic view back down towards the northern end of the lake and the lowlands beyond. At this point I am actually walking away from my day's destination and, not having seen any National Route No. 3 waymarks for a while, I wonder if I have missed a junction. But a bit further on I pick up the steep farm track that comes up from Schwarzsee Bad at the south-western corner of the lake, and a signpost confirms that I am going the right way.

A steep and sweaty uphill stretch along this track brings me to yet another isolated chalet in a clearing; this one is Wälschi Rippa, 1196 m. Here, yet again, the signpost points me off in what seems to be the wrong direction: this is definitely not the most direct way to the Euschelspass. It is, however, a much more scenic option than the direct route. A steep, zigzagging path quickly gains altitude in the forest, then brings me suddenly out into the wild and beautiful Breccaschlund valley, its bottom dotted with conifers, its sides dominated by the rocky walls of the Spitzflue, Chörblispitz and Schopfenspitz. The shady scree slopes below the high, dark cliffs are still holding a surprising amount of snow; even snowier are the north-facing slopes that close the valley off at its far end, below the narrow ridge that runs from the Schopfenspitz to Patraflon. I find a shady rock to sit on for half an hour while I sketch the view; several other walkers go by, most of whom seem to have dogs with them, and one of whom wishes me a schöne Sunntig… The Swiss do tend to do this towards the end of the week in anticipation of the weekend, but I think it's the first time I have been wished a nice Sunday at 11:00 on a Thursday morning!

Breccaschlund
The path passes the chalet of Brecca, 1400 m, then doubles back northwards again and climbs uphill to Rippetli, 1483 m, where I once again find myself perched panoramically high above the Schwarzsee. I have been walking for two hours but with all the twists and turns of the route, I am still less than 3 kilometres from my starting point as the crow flies. This northward detour is needed though, in order to turn the northern end of the Spitzflue and come back into the main valley that runs up to the Euschelspass. I start to pass people having lunch, sitting on sunny rocks or on benches in front of still-deserted farm chalets: the cows have not yet been brought up here for the summer season. Beyond Stierenberg, the path briefly runs between crags, and there is one place where a metal staircase has been installed to facilitate progress… most unusual on the Alpine Panorama Trail. All in all, the detour into the Breccaschlund valley has given this stage the most "mountainous" atmosphere since the days around the Säntis at the eastern end of the route.


I stop for lunch at 12:15, sitting down on the short grass before the path rejoins the main valley route at Unter Euschels. The grass is more or less dry and, for the first time this season, I am able to enjoy a short siesta in the sun after finishing my ham, cheese and apple. At 12:45 I set off again, aiming now to be in Jaun in time for the 14:32 bus to Bulle. A broad farm track climbs steadily up to Ober Euschels, 1550 m, the last chalet on this side of the pass, where two very small calves stare at me, trying to work out what I might be. Ober Euschels has diversified its culinary offering since my last visit in 2010: on that occasion, a sign simply said "BIER", whereas today ALPKÄSE is also proposed. Quite a few people are indeed sitting at the few tables outside the chalet, enjoying cheese and beer.

Above Ober Euschels, large swathes of snow lay either side of the track, although there are only one or two very small patches on the path itself. At about half pas one I reach the Euschelspass: this is the highest point of the official Alpine Panorama Trail at an altitude of 1567 metres, although my off-route detour over the Gulmen during stage 5 took me a couple of hundred metres higher. Framed between the slopes bordering the pass, the spiky peaks of the Gastlosen appear. Like yesterday though, the afternoon has clouded over completely, and these impressive little peaks are not seen in their best light.

The Gastlosen appear as the Euschelspass approaches
The way down to Jaun is short, steep and, for the first 40 metres or so below the pass, very muddy. There must have still been a covering of snow here a few days ago, and the water running off the hills has not yet managed to work out that it isn't supposed to actually run down the path. I drop down across boggy ground to the little mountain restaurant of Ritzlialp, 1510 m, then follow the restaurant's access road for a few minutes until another path, somewhat drier now, branches off across pastures where cows are grazing. The pasture is full of dandelions, a bright yellow foreground for the dark backdrop of the Gastlosen and the cloudy sky. A father and two children are having a break beside a big outcrop of rock; the children happily scrambling all over the boulders while Dad has a sandwich and a snooze on the grass down below. The last section down to Jaun follows a steep, stony path that runs down beside a deep gorge.

Jaun is noteworthy for its two churches and, especially when arriving from above like I do today, for its large waterfall. The fall looks particularly impressive today, after all the recent rain. I fill my bottle at a fountain in the village centre, then go down for a close look at the fall, which is spraying a wet mist for quite a distance around. 


The impressive waterfall at Jaun
  It is a quarter past two; my timing for the 14:32 bus is perfect. It takes three and a half hours to get from Jaun back to Lucerne, making this one of the longest trips home of the entire route. The bus takes me to Bulle, where I have to wait half an hour for the train to Bern; I use this time to take some notes and to finish the sketch that I started the previous evening on the bank of the lake at Schwarzsee. I had been hoping to use the remainder of my two weeks' holiday to string the next two or three stages of the route together, as they are all going to involve similarly long trips until I reach Vevey, another three days' walk away. It looks like the weather is not going to cooperate though, and it is looking increasingly unlikely that I will make it there before I go back to work next Monday. 


25 May 2016

On the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 20, from Guggisberg to Schwarzsee

Time: 4.25 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 730 metres
Height loss: 800 metres

Guggisberg – Zollhaus - Schwarzsee

Although the next two days' walking along the Alpine Panorama Trail are short ones, I make a last-minute decision to string them together on Wednesday and Thursday, with an overnight stop in the lakeside resort of Schwarzsee. The main motivation for this is that I need to pick up a friend at Basel airport on Thursday evening, and with a three and a half hour bus and train ride back from Jaun to Lucerne, the walk would have to be done in a rush if I also have to travel to the starting point in the morning.

After a couple of days of cold temperatures and heavy rain, Wednesday morning is cloudy and cool, although the forecast is for a hot afternoon. I catch the 8:00 train to Bern; although it's a working day, the rush hour is over and the train is half empty. It stays cloudy almost all the way to Bern, the sun finally breaking through just before the train gets there. Three minutes late arriving in Bern, I make it to my connecting train with seconds to spare… thankfully, as missing it would have resulted in a two-hour wait for the next bus from Schwarzenburg to Guggisberg. The train to Schwarzenburg is slow and completely empty, as is the bus; it is something of a miracle that these rural public transport routes survive at all.

The profile of today's walk is a series of ups and downs: first down into the Laubbach valley, then up onto the ridge that separates it from the valley of the Kalte Sense. Down again to Zollhaus, then finally uphill once more to Schwarzsee at the end of the walk. I get off the bus by Guggisberg's little white church and follow the path that runs alongside the village's surprisingly vast cemetery. Young cows are grazing in a field beside the path and, inquisitive, they run up to the electric fence as I pass. The early morning cloud has disappeared almost completely, and the mountains of the Fribourg Pre-alps stand out much more clearly to the south than they did at the end of the previous stage.

From Guggisberg, the route of today's stage goes down into the valley on the left, then climbs over the wooded ridge before heading towards the mountains in the background
A succession of little lanes and overgrown grassy paths lead me southwards and steeply downhill. After the heavy rain of the last two days the grass is still soaking wet, giving my walking boots a good cleaning and soaking the bottom of my trouser legs. A yellow Post Office car comes up the lane and passes me, its roof laden high with a whole selection of parcels of different shapes and sizes. A dog comes out of a garden to inspect me, but does not bark or make any kind of threatening move. As the path continues to twist and turn down into the valley, a tricolour cat surprises me by suddenly appearing out of a hedge, meowing and looking for either caresses or, more probably, whatever edible delicacies may be hidden in my rucksack. The cat follows me for quite a distance before disappearing. There are little streams and the sound of rushing water absolutely everywhere.

Looking back to Guggisberg and the Guggershorn
After about 250 metres of downhill walking, I reach the bottom of the day's first valley at Laubbach, 861 m, where there are a few houses. The waymarking indicates a different direction from the one shown on my old 1:50,000 map. I cross the stream that runs through the valley, then start to climb gently uphill towards the wooded ridge that bounds the valley on its southern side. Broad, stony farm tracks lead me southwards across grassy pastureland; everything is still very wet and slippery underfoot. Coming down the track towards me is a blonde woman who is leading two big dogs and a very large horse of the kind that one could imagine pulling a cart laden with beer-barrels. She ushers all her animals to the side of the path to let me by, then continues downhill towards the valley. Long after she has disappeared, I can follow her progress by the barking of farm dogs as she passes each isolated house. Looking back northwards across the valley, the spire of Guggisberg's church sticks up on the horizon with, to its right, the twin humps of the Guggershorn and the Schwendelberg.

The gradient of the path steepens as I reach the edge of the forest, and the views back northwards are shut out by the trees. I am feeling in good shape today and make easy work of the slope. I am carrying a larger and heavier backpack than usual, with food and clothing for two days, but it is an excellent model and really spreads the load very well. The path angles up the hillside often muddy, sometimes crossing gravelly forest tracks, sometimes following them for a while. The path levels out, and there is then a rather monotonous half an hour of horizontal walking along a broad forest track that offers no views and only occasionally opens out into clearings occupied by lonely chalets and cows. The going is extremely wet and muddy in places, making me very glad that I did not stick to my original plan of stringing together four or five days' hiking… I would have ended up very wet and dirty here!

I finally reach the crest of the ridge and the end of the forest at Gustere, 1210 m, the highest point that I will reach today. Southwards, the mountains are now a lot closer, although perhaps not quite as clear as earlier in the day, as cloud is starting to build up. I start downhill towards the Sense valley 450 metres below. The sun has already dried out this south-facing hillside and, at a quarter past twelve, I find an unexpected and slightly miraculous combination of a place with both a perfect view and dry grass to sit on for my lunch break. Opposite me across the valley, the view is dominated by the peaks of the Kaiseregg, Les Recardets and the Schwyberg, all covered in fresh snow. Their slopes plunge down into a valley where little farm roads wind up the green hillsides, between meadows and woods. Before I eat my lunch, I spend half an hour sketching the view. Two people come down the path and pass by, going in the same direction as me: they are the only other walkers I see all day today. I eat some salami and the salad that I made at home the previous evening, then enjoy the view for a quarter of an hour while a cuckoo sings in a tree somewhere not far away.


After lunch, I continue down the steep, grassy hillside, often slipping on wet patches but somehow managing to stay on my feet. At a gate between fields, a sign asks me to close the "fence door", so I do. In the next field, half a dozen young cows are walking up the path towards me. On catching sight of me, all but one of them turn round and go back off the other way. All but one, that is: the largest of the group stands its ground as I approach. I pass beside it, say hello to it and keep going, but I am aware that I am being watched and followed closely. Each time I look at the animal it stops; then, as soon as I turn my head away and start walking again, it half-walks, half-runs after me. I step off the path and up a grassy bank to allow it to pass me and re-join its friends, but it seems more interested in me and starts to follow me up the steep bank. Eventually, it is only a few centimetres away from me, completely ignoring my instructions to leave me alone and go and play with its friends. I end up stroking its nose and telling it that it's a nice cow; the animal seems to accept this gesture of friendship and, although it continues to escort me to the gate at the far end of the field, it keeps its distance. 


My new friend
I reach the bottom of the descent at Zollhaus, where two mountain rivers meet: the Kalte Sense which flows down from the Gantrisch range, and the and Warme Sense that comes down from the lake at Schwarzsee. Why one of the rivers is qualified as cold and the other one as warm I don't know, they both look equally freezing. Possibly during the summer, the fact that the water of the Warme Sense spends time in the sun-heated lake means that it is a degree or two warmer than its twin. I cross the bridge over the Kalte Sense and, in doing so, pass into the canton of Fribourg after four and a half days' walking on Bernese soil. Fribourg is the eighth of the ten cantons crossed by the Alpine Panorama Trail: eight down, two to go.

The remainder of the day's walk from Zollhaus to Schwarzsee is not particularly inspiring and, for anyone who has not already walked the route, I would recommend an alternative itinerary over the Schwyberg: this would add a couple of hours and a few hundred metres' up and down to the day's tally, but would be a much more interesting and panoramic route. Having already walked over the Schwyberg twice in the past (in thick fog both times), I decide to stick to the waymarked route of national trail No. 3, which simply follows the river up the valley.

Zollhaus is a little roadside place, not really big enough to call a village, with little more than a shabby-looking restaurant and a large sawmill beside the river. The path runs close beside the river, but also close to a busy road. As the guidebook quite rightly states, the noise of the road is drowned out by the sound of the rushing water, and the road itself is hidden from view for most of the time, but there is no escaping the fact that it's there, just above my head at the top of the embankment. At one point, the path passes underneath the road under a large, concrete bridge where picnic tables and benches have been installed: it's a sign that this can be a very wet part of the country. In fact rain is forecast for this evening – probably at about six o'clock according to the satellite image – and as I walk southwards along the Warme Sense, the afternoon rapidly clouds over.

Schwarzsee
By the time I reach Schwarzsee (1047 m) at about three o'clock, the sun has disappeared completely and the day has become grey and gloomy, though it is still warm enough. The dark mountains and the sky laden with heave, dark grey clouds reflect in the water of the lake, which stretches away for a kilometre or so towards the south. The ridge of Les Recardets rises up in the centre of the view, its tops half hidden in the clouds. I sit on a bench and attempt a sketch, but it doesn't really work out properly, so I just sit there looking at the lake and the mountains. I get a text message from a friend who has been looking at the Schwarzsee webcam to see what kind of weather I am having, and who thinks she can see me sitting there looking out over the water.

I have been to Schwarzsee many times before: with a group of colleagues from the office when we walked to the top of the Kaiseregg and down into the Simmental; with my parents when they visited Switzerland; on my own in torrential rain when walking the Route des préalpes fribourgeoises in May 2010; on an absolutely perfect autumn day when ribbons of mauve-grey cloud were strung out along the reddish-brown mountainsides. The last time was in October four and a half years ago, when I arrived here at the end of a long day's walk over La Berra; it was one of my very last hikes before I moved away from western Switzerland to a new job near Lucerne. It feels a bit strange being back here for the first time since then.



I check into the Hostellerie am Schwarzsee, a large hotel at the northern end of the lake, at about half past three. I have booked a single room but am given a suite, about which I am certainly not going to complain. I lie down on the big bed for an hour and have a very pleasant snooze, which I follow with a long, hot bath. The hotel has a pool, but I did not remember to bring a swimsuit along with me.

When I go back downstairs at a quarter past five, it has started to rain. In the background, the radio appropriately plays Supertramp's It's raining again. I take my maps and notebook to the vast, covered veranda where there must be room for more than a hundred people to sit, but where there are only four of us. Outside, beyond the dark lake, the steep west flank of the Kaiseregg is spattered with snow down to an astonishingly low level: I wonder if I will find snow on the Euschelspass tomorrow. I order a Weissbier and sit writing my notes for this blog; not something that I would normally do, but I know that it will be at least five days before I will get the chance to post this, by which time a weekend in Ticino will have probably erased every detail of the day from my memory. The rain intensifies as the radio continues to play a series of melancholy golden oldies.

I have dinner at half past seven; a very tasty bowl of wild garlic cream soup followed by an unfortunately rather average pizza. By the time I have finished eating the rain has stopped, and the sky has begun to clear. Somehow, a faint ray of the setting sun has managed to creep into the gap between cloud and hillside and, just for a few moments, it catches and illuminates the summit of Les Recardets and the snowy wall of the Kaiseregg. Then the cloud returns and night falls over
Schwarzsee. 




22 May 2016

On the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 19, from Rüeggisberg to Guggisberg

Time: 5.25 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 850 metres
Height loss: 660 metres

Rüeggisberg – Schwarzenburg – Guggershorn - Guggisberg

With the arrival of a thundery front and heavy rain forecast for Sunday evening, I make the effort to get up early. Although it looks like the rain will not arrive until the middle of the evening, it will start to cloud over during the afternoon, and it will be nice to do as much of today's walk as possible in the sunshine. I get up at seven, am on the train at eight and, after changing to a local train in Bern, then to a bus in Köniz, I am back in front of the Gasthof Bären in Rüeggisberg just before ten.

Guggisberg, the village at the end of today's walk, is located south-west of Rüeggisberg. Rather than heading straight for it though, the Alpine Panorama Trail makes a long and rather pointless-looking detour away from the hills and westwards to Schwarzenburg before turning south. I am very tempted to eliminate this dogleg and find a more direct alternative, but I have omitted to print out all the maps that I would need to be sure of the route and so decide to stick to the official itinerary.

Looking west at the start of the day's walk. The Guggershorn, the highest point reached during the walk, is the rightmost of the two little wooded humps in the middle of the picture
The waymarking in the centre of Rüeggisberg is not the clearest in the world, and it takes a bit of guesswork and studying of the map before I am on my way. I climb slowly up a narrow lane, with a wide view gradually opening up behind me. The sky is not quite such a perfect blue as yesterday; there is a veil of high clouds and already, a few cumulus puffs are beginning to appear above the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. A prominent feature of the previous stage, the high mountains of the Bernese Oberland will soon disappear for good as I continue westwards. Ahead of me the Guggershorn, which I will reach shortly before the end of today's walk, is a prominent little bump in the centre of the view. It looks so close and one again, I wonder at the reason for the detour: maybe because Schwarzenburg offers accommodation options and a train connection back to Bern?

Also ahead of me is the deep cut of the Schwarzwasser valley. One of the features of this stage is that the normal hiking profile of up followed by down is inverted: this walk starts with a significant amount of downhill walking followed by a long climb. During the first hour of the walk I need to keep an eye open for signposts, as the route follows a confusing sequence of lanes and fields, often changing direction unexpectedly. I walk steeply downhill across a pathless pasture that has been heavily and unpleasantly churned by the hooves of cows; at the entrance to the next field, a sign warns me that a sheepdog may be on duty and that I should give it a wide berth and not react to its barking… thankfully, the field is empty and the dog is not in residence today. I do get barked at by a small dog as I pass by the chalet of Weid, 820 m, but it is no more than a token gesture with no real intent.


Now I leave the fields and farm tracks for the heavily wooded Schwandbach valley which runs down towards the Schwarzwasser. The path is muddy and slippery, and occasionally drops down to cross little side streams that run quietly below dripping cliffs of grey rock. The path ends at a lane, which I follow downhill to Rossgrabebrugg, 682 m, where a bridge crosses high above the Schwarzwasser. From now until the end of the walk it will be pretty much uphill all the way. 

Crossing the Schwarzwasser
I climb out of the Schwarzwasser valley along another lane, reflecting that there has already been rather a lot of asphalt underfoot today. Unfortunately, it is not about to get any better. Not only is the surface hard on my feet, but there is also no view to speak of. During the previous two stages, both of which were also transitional walks to get from one mountain area to another, there were at least spectacular views to enjoy. Today there is none of this and more than ever, I wish I had brought along the right maps to work out my own alternative route.

A steep climb up a very muddy forest track cuts off a few bends in the road, which I re-join shortly before the hamlet of Elisried. Two local teenagers go past on old-fashioned mopeds, no helmets on their heads, one hand barely holding the handlebars, deep in conversation. Every few minutes I have to step aside to let tractors go past: this is very much farming country, and the agricultural traffic on the road and in the fields is constant. At Schönentannen, the sound of accordion, double bass and drum from a rustic folk band is coming out of a restaurant. A sign tells me that the hamlet belongs administratively to the village of Mamishaus, a bizarre name which really does mean "Mummy's house". An overgrown path between the edge of a wood and a field of cereal finally brings me to the outskirts of Schwarzenburg after about two and a quarter hours' not very inspiring walking. 

Farming country at Elisried
Schwarzenburg is a typical, medium-sized Swiss country town, and is the focal point of the farming area that I am crossing today. The town's name translates as "Castle Black", which may or may not be a Game of Thrones reference… probably not, in fact. A small, old centre clustered round the village square has a number of attractive houses, but this centre has been somewhat swallowed up by more recent development: not ugly by any means, but lacking in character. The route takes me past the railway station, where I drink deeply from a fountain and refill my water bottle, then southwards out of town past a very un-black little château.

Castle Black?
I have walked from Schwarzenburg to Guggisberg before: I cannot remember exactly when, but it must have been five or six years ago. Oddly, as I follow the road out of Schwarzenburg, I can remember absolutely nothing of the landscape through which I am walking, or of its features. All I can remember from that previous day was that the weather was cold and grey, apparently to the extent that I did not even take any photos. I definitely have no recollection of the fact that the first five kilometres are on yet another asphalted lane, and I envy the cyclists who pass me from time to time. In a field away to the left, two teams are playing the traditional traditional Bernese sport of Hornuss which involves one team walloping a hard wooden puck as far as possible through the air, and the other team trying to catch it before it hits the ground.

Finally, finally, the lane gives way to a stony track at Schiltberg, 860 m. A little way above the farmhouse, I stop for lunch on a bench which offers a very pleasant view back down over the farmland that I have crossed since Schwarzenburg. The sun is still hot on my back but away to the north and west, the sky has started to darken and occasional gusts of wind indicate that the weather will soon be changing. I eat my ham and cheese sandwiches slowly, observed by the large, inquisitive eyes of several cows on the other side of the fence.

Now the way becomes steeper, as I climb up towards the Guggershorn. I climb up along a grassy ridge to a farmhouse that is curiously named Pfad (which means path) on the map, then ever more steeply up a stony forest path which soon takes me above the 1,000-metre contour. The air is becoming increasingly sticky, the kind of conditions that drain your energy in no time, especially when already in a state of post-lunch torpor. The path becomes a lane once again, running up to a little cluster of houses at Walehus, 1103 m. 

Bad weather coming in from the north-west
The next section is the steepest of the day; a hundred metres up a muddy forest path that heads straight up the slope, making no attempt at all to zigzag in order to reduce the gradient. I am completely exhausted by the time I reach the upper limit of the woods and come out onto the grassy saddle between the Guggershorn and its slightly higher neighbour the Schwendelberg. Now, finally, there is something that I remember from my previous visit here: there is a little wooden building at the lowest point of the ridge, which made for a rather cold lunch spot for myself and the friend who had joined me for the walk. A young English-speaking couple are heading up towards the Schwendelberg, but the field that they have to cross is occupied by a dozen or so cows. As is so often the case, the cows have decided to stand on the path: the female half of the couple is clearly terrified of them, and he boyfriend's attempts to move them further away seem to be having exactly the opposite effect. Eventually he manages to persuade her to walk past the cows and they continue up the ridge.

Here, for the first time, the next mountain range comes into view: away to the south, there are the Fribourg Pre-Alps, which I will be walking through during the course of the next three stages. The cloud has thickened and the light is not good, but I can still identify the Chörblispitz, the Schopfenspitz, the Schwyberg which I have crossed twice in snow and fog without ever seeing so much as a glimpse of the view. Further south, those jagged teeth can only belong to the Gastlosen, while to the west, the regular pyramid shape of La Berra shows that I will soon be crossing the linguistic frontier between the German and French-speaking parts of Switzerland.

I continue up the last steep metres to the 1283-metre Guggershorn, the highest point of the day's walk. The summit is a great block of what the Swiss call Nagelfluh, which Wikipedia informs me is conglomerate in English. Vertical cliffs on all four sides would normally make it inaccessible to ordinary walkers like me… but the Swiss have an answer to these things, and a steep wooden staircase – impressive when seen from below but not in any way difficult – facilitates access to the top. The view is pretty much the same as the one from the saddle down below.

The stairs that lead to the top of the Guggershorn
It is only another 20 minutes' walk to Guggisberg, just below the Guggershorn on its southern side. I retrace my steps down the stairs, then follow a zigzagging path through woods and across fields to the village. I have just missed a bus and have an hour's wait until the next one, but that is absolutely not a problem: the Hotel Sternen has a large terrace with a panoramic view and plenty of parasols, and I spend a very happy hour there with a beer and a lemon and pineapple sorbet.

This has been by far the least interesting of the last three lowland stages, with little in the way of views and a really unacceptable amount of road walking. Now though, the Alpine Panorama Trail heads back towards the mountains. The next three stages will take me up the valley of the Sense to Schwarzsee, then over the Euschelspass (the highest point of the entire route at 1566 metres) and down to Jaun, Charmey and Gruyères.

21 May 2016

On the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 18, from Münsingen to Rüeggisberg


Time: 5.75 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 915 metres
Height loss: 520 metres

Münsingen – Belpberg – Toffen – Rüeggisberg

I have been told that I need to work seriously on getting my vacation and overtime balance down, as a result of which I find myself with two weeks of unexpected holiday at the end of May. It looks like an opportunity to make some serious progress along the Alpine Panorama Trail: there won't be enough days for me to complete the walk to Geneva, but I am hoping to at least reach Lausanne by the time I go back to work on 6th June.

A lot will depend on the weather, of course. It looks like my two weeks off will start with a hot, sunny Saturday and Sunday, but these will be followed by a wet Monday, after which all bets are off in terms of how long it will take for the bad weather to clear. I decide to use the wet Monday for all the boring household things that I would normally do on Saturday, as a result of which I find myself back at Münisngen station shortly before 11:00 on Saturday morning (having not wanted to get up too early on the first day of my vacation). The morning is sunny and definitely hot rather than just warm: there will be no need for fleeces today.

From the station, I walk westwards through quiet residential streets, then follow a riverside path southwards towards the bridge over the Aare. I overtake two small girls who are walking barefoot in front of me, probably no more than seven or eight years old. As soon as I am past them, a storm of whispering and giggling breaks out: I had no idea I was so funny when seen from behind! Outside the town's riverside sports ground, posters are advertising the next home games of both FC Thun and BSC Young Boys from Bern: it's true that Münsingen is exactly halfway between Bern and Thun, and I wonder which way the majority of the town sways when the two clubs meet each other. There is no sign of any advertising for the matches of FC Münsingen. A girl on a horse overtakes me, and I follow her along the minor road that crosses the Aare on a narrow steel bridge. The river is running fast and high; looking southwards and upstream, the Jungfrau sticks up snowy and white above the turquoise water. On the far bank, as I start to climb, I pass an enclosure where a dog-training session is going on; owners standing beside their dogs with a loud-voiced instructor in the middle. Judging by the noise, the dogs seem to be mostly being trained to bark at each other.

The Aare at Münsingen
Considering that this stage of the Alpine Panorama Trail is one of the furthest away from the mountains, there are some surprisingly steep uphill bits, especially during the first part of the walk over the Belpberg. The initial climb is a case in point: a steep and seemingly endless flight of steps sees me gain a hundred metres in height over a distance of less than half a kilometre. The gradient remains steep until I reach the little cluster of houses at Hindere Chlapf, 764 m. This first section is a mixture of stony farm tracks and quiet lanes, which will remain the pattern for the rest of the day. The guidebook mentions that the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau are a prominent feature of the view throughout this stage, but during this first part of the walk, the main feature is the long range of mountains that extends from the Stockhorn to the Gantrisch and beyond. Half-seen in the clouds at the end of the previous stage, today they stand out crystal clear, a series of rocky towers set against the blue sky. Far away in the east, my old friend the Pilatus is still just visible, not wanting to let go completely.

On the Belpberg, with the Stockhorn in the centre on the horizon
I continue uphill, more gently now, along lanes and across fields, gradually climbing up to an altitude of about 860 metres above the hamlet of Hostete. The view in all directions is a beautiful patchwork of fields; some freshly ploughed, some planted with rows of still-green cereals, others a chaotic riot of wild flowers. Now the general direction is downhill, towards the Gürbetal valley. I miss a signpost and arrive at Hostete, with its old wooden houses, from a direction diametrically opposite to the one from which I should have come… so much for my map-reading abilities.

The path drops down steeply now into the Gürbetal, narrow and slippery between the edge of the forest and fields. I cross the flat bottom of the valley on a lane, which eventually brings me to the village of Toffen at about half past twelve. Toffen is Saturday-lunchtime quiet; the only sign of activity is people sitting outside the village's restaurants enjoying a drink in the sun. It is a largely modern, residential village which has presumably grown in recent years thanks to the railway that runs along the bottom of the Gürbetal: Bern is only a 17-minute commute away from here.

Having dropped down from 860 metres to 530 I now need to regain the lost altitude plus some more in addition, given that the highest point of the day's walk is at 967 metres. It's past one o'clock and I am hungry as I begin the steep climb out of the Gürbetal and onto the Längenberg. Thankfully the first (and steepest) part of the climb is in woodland, as the early afternoon has become really hot and sticky. I make hard work of this climb, telling myself that I will soon find a bench where I can stop for lunch. Benches are always in short supply when you need one though, and today is no exception. Just sitting in a field is not really an option: the grass in the fields beside the path is long; it would just be inviting all the ticks and other unpleasant insects in the area to come and feast on my blood. Eventually, just above the farmhouse of Bode, 789 m, I do find a bench with at least one of the required features of view and shade: this one is facing away from the best views, but at least it offers protection from the strong sun. During the first part of the walk I did not see any other people but now, as I sit eating my sandwiches, a number of walkers go by: young couples, older couples, couples with or without dogs.

The Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau seen from Oberfeld
I continue uphill to Oberfeld, 851 m, with an ever more panoramic view to the south. The Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau are very much in evidence now and, to their left, the Schreckhorn and Wetterhorn have also appeared. I cross a fairly busy road – tomorrow morning I will actually go along this road in a bus – then continue through a rather muddy patch of woodland. Here, my route is joined by the Swiss national trail No. 4, the Via Jacobi, part of the network of pilgrims' routes that converge on Santiago de Compostela. The Via Jacobi and the Alpine Panorama Trail last crossed right at the start of my walk, not far from Appenzell, and the two long-distance routes now share the same path for the remainder of today's stage.

Leaving the forest, I now turn southwards again and follow a lane across open agricultural land, still with the most amazing view ahead of me. At Leueberg, the path climbs up to a grassy mound at 960 metres, indicated on a signpost as the "Tavel monument". My only knowledge of Tavel relates to rosé wine from the south of France, and I have to do a bit of Googling to discover that this monument is in fact dedicated to a certain Rudolf von Tavel, an early 20th century Bernese writer. There is a clump of trees on top of the mound, in whose shade several benches look out southwards over a grandiose view in which Lake Thun has become visible. I stop here for a rest and a drink of water, joining quite a crowd of people who have walked up from the car park down below to enjoy the panorama.

Lake Thun seen from the Tavel monument
I have reached the highest point of the day's walk, the last hour of which is relatively flat. I follow muddy forest track south-eastwards for half an hour, emerging from the woods to yet another panoramic view, this time looking across to the Gantrisch and its satellites. In the foreground, tractors are going back and forth, collecting freshly cut hay and baling it up into white plastic-covered sausages. Parallel lines of lighter and darker shades of green draw the eye towards the snowy Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, now starting to retreat into the distance. I overtake a couple who are talking in a mixture of languages: the woman is constantly switching between French and French-accented German, while her companion replies in Bernese dialect.

The Gantrisch range, shortly before arriving at Rüeggisberg
I reach the quiet hillside village of Rüeggisberg, at an altitude of 930 metres, at about a quarter past four. I have a good half an hour to wait for the bus, which I spend pleasantly at a table outside the Gasthof zum Bären, with a large beer in front of me and my boots off to rest my tired feet. It has been an enjoyable day's walk with some really superb scenery. Tomorrow I will be back for the next stage.






15 May 2016

On the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 17, from Neumühle to Münsingen

Time: 5.5 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 870 metres
Height loss: 970 metres

Neumühle – Moosegg – Blaseflue – Grosshöchstetten – Mündigen

After the magnificent crossing of the Napf last weekend (during which I passed the halfway point of the Alpine Panorama Trail), my expectations for the next two or three stages are not so high. These stages cross lower-lying ground, and form a transition between the hills of central Switzerland and the spiky mountains of the Fribourg Pre-Alps. I am nevertheless looking forward to walking them, as they will take me through unfamiliar country before I launch into a series of legs that I have already hiked in the past.

It's the second of three long weekends during May, and the weather forecast is considerably less promising than it was last weekend. A cold front will bring rain on Saturday and Monday… Sunday should be OK, with equal mounts of cloud and sun. The uninspiring forecast must have triggered a mass exodus south of the Alps for the holiday weekend; Lucerne station is unusually deserted at nine on Sunday morning, and I am one of only three passengers on the train to Langnau. The connection there is unusually poor by Swiss standards, and I have to wait almost 25 minutes for the train to Neumühle, just one station and five minutes down the line.

The sky is mostly cloudy as I start walking, with occasional patches of blue here and there: the proportion of sun to cloud will gradually increase as the day goes on and the weather improves. The air is quite chilly, not quite enough to justify the gloves which I have anyway forgotten to bring, but not far off. There has been some very heavy rain over the last two days and the Grosse Emme, which I cross right at the start of the walk, is a fast-flowing mass of brown water, just about staying within its banks. Also right at the start of the walk, I pass the place where my east to west national trail No. 3 intersects the north to south trail No. 2… maybe my next project after I finish this one?

A grassy path leads me up above Lauperswil in the Emmental
I walk through the village of Lauperswil with its whitewashed church, then start to climb uphill out of the Emmental valley, up a somewhat overgrown, grassy path. Looking back down into the valley, everything is very green, with occasional flashes of more vivid colour where a ray of sun has managed to break through and splash its light onto the surface of a field. Away to the east in the background, the summits of the Napf range which I crossed during the last two days' walk have their heads in the clouds: how lucky was our choice of weekend when we did that hike, this weekend we would have had no views and would probably have abandoned in a soggy mess. The path runs briefly along a ledge between bands of rock, then emerges onto a farm road by the ruined castle of Wartenstein, 787 m. The ruin is uninspiring, no more than a stump of a round tower surrounded by trees.

Turning south-westwards now, I continue along a succession of farm tracks and grassy paths across meadows. Uphill sections and flatter sections follow each other, while the Emmental gradually drops away to my left as I gain height. I pass a family group of four adults and four children coming the other way. We exchange the usual polite greetings; the last child in the group, who must be six or seven, gives me a very Bernese "Grüessech", then runs off down the path singing "We will… we will… ROCK YOU!" at the top of his voice. The path winds prettily round the tops of little valleys where sheep are enjoying the lush spring grass, very muddy in places after all the recent rain. I am approaching one of several places marked on the map as Moosegg: the word Moos means moss or marsh in Swiss German and, in place names, tends to be a sure indication of somewhere damp and boggy.

Looking back down eastwards into the Emmental...

... and northwards towards the Jura
All of these Mooseggs are isolated hamlets on a ridge in the middle of nowhere, but one of them has a school and the next one, at an altitude of about 960 metres, can even boast a large hotel and a bus stop, albeit served by only four buses a week: two on Saturday and two on Sunday. The official guidebook to the Alpine Panorama Trail has this as the end of a stage that started at Lüderenalp: having continued beyond Lüderenalp to Neumühle last weekend, I have got out of sync with the guidebook and am planning to walk a stage and a half today to compensate. A little further on, at Waldhäusern, 967 m, there is another big old hotel-restaurant in the middle of nowhere, an appetizing smell of lunch wafting out of the open windows to remind me that it is almost one o'clock. Opposite the restaurant, a drinking fountain bears a notice written by the hotel owner, informing walkers that the water has not been officially certified as drinkable… into which I read the hidden meaning: "Don't drink this free water, come and buy a bottle of mine."

A very green landscape near Moosegg
Now for the short but fairly steep climb to the Blaseflue, the day's highest point at an altitude of 1118 metres. If I am not mistaken, this is the last summit crossed by the Alpine Panorama Trail. The name Blaseflue could be translated as something like "Windy Hill": there is no wind on its wooded summit but also no view because of the trees, so I decide to carry on a bit down the far side; no doubt I will come across a bench in front of a nice view before long.

And indeed I do. After five minutes' downhill walking, the forest suddenly comes to an end and there in front of me is a red wooden bench, looking south-west towards a wonderful view of rolling fields, farms, lanes and woods, all very nicely framed by trees. It looks like an absolutely perfect spot for lunch and, why not, for half an hour's sketching afterwards. Except that as soon as I sit down, I realise that all the wind that wasn't blowing on top of the Blaseflue is blowing here… and that it's a really, really cold wind! Despite putting on my Goretex jacket, I am freezing within minutes… what could have been a lazy hour turns into one of the shortest lunch breaks I can remember having while hiking, as I eat my salad and cheese as quickly as possible before my hands drop off.

Nice view... but what a cold wind!
Of course, five minutes later I am a hundred metres lower down, the wind has stopped blowing, the sun has come out and it is warm… such are the joys of hiking. Now comes another long series of farm lanes, forest tracks and grassy paths, never spectacular but always pretty. In this gently undulating landscape, the route manages to keep to the highest available ground, which means that the views in all directions are extensive pretty much all the time. My only regret is that the mountains of the Bernese Alps are still hidden away to the south; although the clouds are definitely clearing, it appears unlikely that they will clear enough to reveal their snowy peaks. Closer at hand, the Hohgant and Schrattenflue are just about visible, and look like they are carrying a fair bit of fresh snow. At Büel, 956 m, I pass a house in whose garden a large model railway layout has been built. No trains are operating (maybe there is no Sunday service in this isolated place?), but a black and white cat is sitting beside the tracks, as if waiting for something to happen.

This is what cats do while waiting for the train
Now the path drops down towards Grosshöchstetten, a large village which has a proper railway station, and would be a good place to stop for anyone wanting to shorten this day's walk. Grosshöchstetten clearly has a farming history, as testified by the numerous old wooden houses and barns, but there is also a lot of modern development and the village has spread out from its centre across a sunny, south-facing hillside. Presumably it has discovered a new vocation as a dormitory town for Thun, Burgdorf and Bern. The village has an unusual number of stone water troughs and fountains: the ground below must be full of springs.

I cross the village, leaving it on its western side along a lane that climbs back up to an altitude of 873 metres, turning the wooded Hürnberg on its south side. Ahead of me, beyond the Aare valley into which I will now start to descend, the clouds have continued to clear from the mountains. The summits of the Gantrisch and its neighbour the Nünenenflue are now clearly visible, but the Stockhorn at the other end of the same range is still buried in thick cloud, as is the pyramidal Niesen further south. At Ballenbüel, 852 m, all of this background is perfectly set off by a solitary tree on a grassy hump. The line of a farm track and the symmetrical furrows of a ploughed field lead the eye towards this tree, then away beyond it to the mountains in the distance.

Ballenbüel
I drop down towards the village of Gysenstein. In a field beside the road, four very small kids (of the goat variety, not he human one) are playing in the sunshine. The two smaller ones are standing on top of a tree stump, from which they are promptly ejected by the other two animals, who must be a few days older and are slightly larger. Even in the world of baby goats, games of power are being played out and a hierarchy is being established. A little further on, on the other side of the road, I am surprised to see a field containing maybe seven or eight donkeys: not an animal that one sees very often and when you do see one, it is more usually either alone or paired off with a horse than with others of its own kind. I cross the Bern – Lucerne railway on a level crossing beside the little station at Tägertschi (another possibility for tired feet to shorten the walk), then begin the final half hour's descent to Münsingen. A field of oilseed rape to the right of the lane is positively buzzing with activity; every bee in the canton of Bern has homed in on it, judging by the noise.

The clouds clear gradually from the Gantrisch range
Münsingen, the destination of this walk, is the largest town on the Alpine Panorama Trail since Lucerne. It is also the closest that the route comes to Bern, and the proximity of the capital city can definitely be felt. If Grosshöchstetten is somewhere on the edge between country and suburbia, Münsingen is very much suburban, and quite upmarket suburban as well, I would guess. Quiet residential streets, big houses, a well-maintained château, it looks like a nice little town, maybe just spoilt a bit by the busy road and railway that run through it.

It has been a pleasant walk; not spectacular by any means, but once again the views have justified the route's name. The next stage will take me across the Aare river, over the Belpberg and through the Gürbetal valley, then southwards to Rüeggisberg. With two weeks' holiday coming up and ten or eleven stages left to walk, I should have made good progress towards Geneva by the end of the first week of June.

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